Share story

A Mormon missionary and cancer survivor from Utah who lived through the Spain train crash that left 80 dead said Thursday he remembers the train lifting off the tracks “like a roller coaster” before he blacked out and awoke to a “gruesome” scene.

Stephen Ward, 18, was one of at least six Americans hurt Wednesday when the train carrying 218 passengers and five crew members hurtled off the rails and smashed into a security wall. One American died, the U.S. State Department said. The U.S. victim was identified by the Diocese of Arlington as Ana Maria Cordoba, an administrative employee from northern Virginia.

In a phone interview with The Associated Press from La Coruña, Spain, Ward said he suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck but has been discharged from the hospital

“From a religious standpoint, I’d like to say that God has something in store for me and that there’s a reason I’m still here,” he said.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Ward, of Bountiful, expects to stay in Spain to complete his two-year mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that started six weeks ago.

Four years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare cancer known as Burkitt’s lymphoma and nearly died while undergoing a bone-marrow transplant. “I count myself very lucky and very blessed to have been able to survive so many things,” Ward said.

On Wednesday, he was supposed to board an earlier train from Madrid to El Ferrol, a coastal city in northwest Spain. But he accidentally bought a ticket for the wrong day and instead went on the train that ended up crashing as it rounded a bend about 60 miles north of Santiago de Compostela.

He said that after the crash, “Everyone was covered in blood. … There was a lot of crying, a lot of screaming. There were plenty of dead bodies. It was quite gruesome, to be honest.”

A picture of the 6-foot-6 Stephen Ward appeared in a Spanish newspaper, blood running down his face, his father, Raymond Ward, said. “He looks terrible, but he’s alive so that’s good,” the elder Ward said. “When we talked with him he was in good spirits.”

Meanwhile, crash investigators were focusing on the train’s speed and its driver, who relished high velocity and boasted about breaking speed records on his Facebook page. The driver, Francisco José Garzón Amo, 52, with more than three decades of experience, is now under investigation by a judge who has ordered the collection of all recordings in connection with the crash. On the day of the wreck, he substituted for another driver at the controls just 60 miles before the crash, according to Spanish news reports.

Arno’s Facebook page, deleted Thursday, included a photograph and exchanges that portrayed a taste for speed. One photo posted in March 2012 showed a speedometer needle stuck at 200 kilometers per hour (124 mph) and his giddy remark: “I’m at the limit and I can’t go any faster or they will give me a fine.”

On Thursday, Spanish news media reported the driver had said the train’s speed was 190 kilometers per hour (about 118 mph), more than double the limit in the stretch where the train derailed.

Most high-speed lines that are part of the European Rail Traffic system are covered by a GPS-based system that constantly monitors trains’ speed and automatically brakes them at speed limits. Slower trains and trains crossing urban areas use a system that warns the driver with sound and lights at excessive speeds, according to María Carmen Palao, a spokeswoman with Spain’s ADIF rail infrastructure company.

Arno survived the accident with light injuries and is under police guard, though he has not been formally arrested in the crash. He is “lucid and able to speak,” according to Carmen Prieto, a spokeswoman for the Spanish Development Ministry.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.